Empowering Pet Owners to Prevent Pet Obesity

Take a good look at – and feel of - your pet. Are they overweight? Do you know how to check? And, if they are, do you know what to do about it? Earlier this month the Association of Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) published their latest report. Results from the annual clinical survey in October 2018 revealed 25.7% of cats and 36.9% of dogs were classified by their veterinarian as being overweight and 33.8% of cats and 18.9% of dogs were obese. That’s an estimated 56 million cats and 50 million dogs which are overweight or obese, based on 2018 pet population projections provided by the American Pet Products Association (APPA). There’s no getting away from it - this is a serious health issue for pets.

 
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It’s often assumed that it’s easy for people to spot when their pet is overweight, but research has shown this isn’t the case. One study found that 60% of dogs in a group were overweight, but only 15% of their owners thought their pet was above their ideal weight. Overweight or obese pets face an increased risk of poor health, with conditions such as joint problems, breathing difficulties, skin conditions and even cancer being more common in pets which are above their ideal weight. Research shows that overweight and obese dogs have a shorter lifespan than slim ones and poorer quality of life too. The good news is that even a small amount of weight loss can improve the situation, so it’s well worth the effort to embark on a weight loss plan for your pet if they are overweight.

A topic close to my heart, as a board member of APOP, is preventing obesity. It’s much easier to keep a pet at a healthy weight if they’ve never been obese than getting the weight off a portly pet! Nutrition and activity can both play an important role in helping prevent unhealthy weight gain. The APOP survey found that many pet owners feel overwhelmed with pet food choices and conflicting dietary advice and they desperately want help and nutritional recommendations from their veterinary health care team. The right diet – both type and amount – is crucial and veterinarians can help pet owners get started on a healthy weight loss plan as well as monitor to help troubleshoot and stay on track.

Exercise is clearly important, but it can be tricky for owners, and even veterinarians, to determine how much activity is needed. The Pet Insight Project has already yielded some interesting results on this topic. Analyzing the data from almost 30,000 dogs in the project showed that a third receive less than 30 minutes of exercise on an average day and only a third of them get more than 60 minutes a day. The median amount of daily exercise for these dogs is 45 minutes (at least they beat humans who only average 27 minutes a day according to Fitbit data!). It might not be surprising to learn that the youngest dogs are generally most active, with those under 1 year of age getting an average of 92 minutes of activity a day, while those over 8 years and older get just 29 minutes, on average. Overweight and obese dogs are significantly less active than healthy weight dogs. This can result in a vicious circle – the overweight pet is more likely to develop arthritis, which makes them less able to exercise comfortably, resulting in even more weight gain and potentially worsen their arthritis and pain, limiting activity even further.

 
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“Feed less and exercise more” is a common mantra but just as the optimal lower calorie food is important, exercise can play an important role in healthy weight loss.  However, more detailed advice on the amount and type of exercise can be hard to get. This is where pet activity trackers like Whistle FIT can play an important role. Firstly, they are a great way to accurately calculate how much exercise your pet is getting. With Whistle FIT you can track activity and rest. Secondly, they enable pet owners to set activity goals. Your veterinarian can help with this, but Whistle FIT can even give personalized recommendations based on your dog’s age, weight, and breed. The device can then track progress. Research by the Whistle team has found that having a daily activity goal motivates pet owners to give their pet extra exercise to reach their goal!

There are many aspects of your dog you can’t change. Their genetics will have an impact on their tendency to gain weight, and their lifestyle before they came into your care is something that can’t be changed. But the power to impact their lifestyle right now is in your hands! The Pet Insight Project is so powerful; gathering data from dogs of all shapes and sizes, to expand understanding of the important issues and improve pet care in the future. A future – I hope – of leaner and healthier pets.

BY JULIE CHURCHILL, DVM, PhD
PROFESSOR, COLLEGE OF VETERINARY MEDICINE, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA

 
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